Various city departments and non-profit organizations in Johannesburg have become entangled in a cycle of shifting responsibility and pointing fingers at each other when issues of homelessness are brought up.
“All that glitters is not gold” is a well known aphorism that conveys the idea that appearances can be deceiving, thus some things are too good to be true. The city of Johannesburg, often dubbed the City of Gold, serves as a vivid illustration of this saying as it grapples with significant disparities stemming from political instability, macro-economic challenges, and persistent social problems.
A typical morning in the bustling streets of Johannesburg is characterised by the noise of car horns, as frustrated taxi drivers weave through traffic, disrupting the flow of traffic. For those who call the pavements on either side of the road home, this commotion is their unwelcome alarm, while the early risers are already up, sifting through garbage bins in search of food or items to exchange for a few coins at recycling centres. This is the daily reality of a homeless person in the city, however, it becomes even more daunting during winter or rainy days.
For some shelters provided refuge, only three government shelters are operational in Joburg. Three Kotze Street Shelter in Braamfontein is the largest, accommodating 350 males and females, followed by the 1 Dan Street shelter which has a bed capacity of 60 for males only and lastly, 21 Windsor West which has a bed capacity for 40 males only.
Despite this, homelessness receives little to no attention in annual budgets and planning, census data cannot even accurately capture the number of people on the streets in the municipality. Consequently, careless estimations have been made, such as when Homeless Solutions, a non-profit organisation based in Pretoria said that there were a combined 600 000 homeless people in Joburg and Tshwane. Africa Check denounced this claim after finding out that it was based on opinion rather than evidence.
Moreover, the municipality releases an Integrated Annual Report where overall city governance such as management, service delivery, financial performance and more are covered. This report also did not have any programmes or funding outlined for displaced persons. Instead, homelessness was identified as a hinderance to the public sector housing plan.
In April 2020, Gauteng premier, Panyaza Lesufi said that Johannesburg had 15 000 homeless people while Tshwane had 10 000. Yet, in a recent interview with News24 the CEO of Johannesburg Homeless Network, Mary Gillet-de Klerk said the number is currently more than 20 000 in Johannesburg.
Evidence shows that the municipality has made no financial investments in statistical research which could help to determine the accurate number of displaced persons. The director of research of the Gauteng Department of Social Development, Sello Mokoena confirmed that there are currently no plans to invest in such research. Therefore, speculations will persist.
On the contrary, the City of Cape Town (CPT) conducted an extensive study which not only found an approximate number but also the racial make-up and health status of its homeless population. This type of research required collaboration between various departments and NGOs and ultimately assisted the local government to plan for this vulnerable group’s basic needs.
Playing the blame game
The departments of Social Development, Financial Development, Human Settlements, Public Safety and Transportation are some of the city’s key drivers of social change. But when questions about shelters, budgets and healthcare for the homeless are raised, the finger pointing begins.
The Johannesburg Department of Social Development (DSD) defines homelessness as “displaced persons who live on the streets, under bridges or open spaces and are unable to provide themselves with shelter at any given time or place.”
The above definition proves that housing is a huge problem, however, Shiraaz Lorgat who oversees social housing funds under Human Settlements said they do not “play in the homelessness space” as they only fund affordable rental projects.
When enquiring about the inadequate health facilities and services provided for homeless people, the deputy director of the District Health Services Dorothy Diale, told Wits Vuvuzela that homeless people are attended by “social development,” but did not comment on the health department’s mandate on displaced persons.
Ultimately, the department of social development acknowledged that they are accountable for the homeless population, but clearly indicated that against popular belief, their mandate is not to remove people from the streets but rather to create awareness and to work closely with those who are willing to be assisted. “Human Settlements is not doing what they should be doing, its mandate is to provide housing, our [social development] mandate is not to build,” said Kebonye Senna, the head of the Migration, Displaced, and Children’s Services Unit in the department.
The lack of accountability propelled the provincial government (Gauteng Department of Social Development) to rely on Non-Profit and Non-Governmental Organisations to care for homeless beneficiaries, and allocated R87 million to the NPOs in 2022 and in 2023. Budgetary constraints saw the same allocation two years running.
Nonetheless, during the state of the province address on February 20, 2023, Lesufi announced that R2 billion was allocated to NGOs without specifying whether this was in addition to the R87 million. In response to this, Senna expressed her dissatisfaction and lack of trust for NPOs, noting that the government is wasting money by funding them. She further referenced an article published on November 6, 2023, about corrupt NPOs using resources provided for the poor for their personal benefits. “The money given to NGOs is meant to assist shelters. R 289 000 should be given to 3 Kotze Shelter per month and R 55 000 to 21 Windsor West, but theres only R 20 000 provided for both shelters.”
The 2022 social development policy document on homelessness has an alphabetical list (A-Z) of objectives. Three specific goals stand out. The first states that the department should “institute regular research (every two years) to establish the nature and extent of homelessness in the city”. The second states that the department should “facilitate access to housing through advocacy programmes for the homeless,” and the third that there should be a “special allocation of a percentage of houses to rehabilitated homeless people”. These objectives have not been realised and there are currently no plans in place to pursue them.
The slogan for the Johannesburg Health Department is, “one city, one health system” thus the assumption is that displaced people are included in healthcare services, especially because they are more prone to contagious, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
The city has 40 public clinics and hospitals, however, according to a report by the National Institute of Health, homeless patients face discrimination, marginalization and stigma when accessing public hospitals. Moreover, there are no programmes in the department of health tailored to the needs of displaced persons, particularly if they are immigrants or do not have identification documents. For example, the latest HIV counselling and testing policy, dates to December 2003 but does not make mention of homeless people.
Twenty three yearold Sandile Letsoele told Wits Vuvuzela that he does not go to public hospitals because the nurses look down on him and other homeless people. “They’ll just look at you and tell you to stand very far, so we normally wait the whole day before we get help,” said Letsoele.
In partnership with the Holy Trinity Church in Braamfontein, University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) students established the only clinic for homeless people in South Africa in 2004.
However, the leader of the church, Father Bruce Botha told Wits Vuvuzela that the clinic has not been operating since covid-19 due to “institutional problems” which he did not wish to elaborate on. The Health Sciences Faculty at Wits did not respond to queries around this either. “When it does run, it provides basic health screening, medical consultation, providing free prescription medication, wound dressing and HIV screening,” said Botha.
Attempts at forging a home for homelessness
The issue of stigmatization goes beyond health care facilities, it is also seen in local communities. Senna said that social development looks for hotspots before establishing a shelter, “We tried in Lenasia but there were issues of security, people don’t understand homelessness- they associate it with criminal activities.” She added that they are currently building another shelter in Freedom Park which will accommodate both males and females.
Displaced persons sometimes complain about the accessibility and treatment in NGOs and shelters. Thirty year old Nicholas Mncube, from Zimbabwe said he went to 3 Kotze shelter in Braamfontein, but they refused to take him in without a social worker. “I really don’t know why they wanted me to bring a social worker, but now I’m staying at MES [an NGO for the homeless] which is also here in Braam.” Mncube said staying at MES costs R30 per night which he cannot afford regularly, he can only go on days he has raised enough money from begging.
Apart from this, the homeless also try to forge their own homes, be it on the streets or by occupying abandoned buildings. Mncube who left Zimbabwe at the age of 23 said he lived and slept next to Joburg Theatre but was chased away by the police before going to MES.
Letsoele, who ended up on the streets due to drugs said he stayed at 3 Kotze but they kicked him out before his due time, “I was attending my sessions and recovering but they kicked me out during the weekend when my social worker was not there so I couldn’t even speak to him.” Contrary to this Senna said, the beneficiaries go through a three to six months programme which includes assessments and rehabilitation, and only released once their social worker believes they are ready for the outside world.
Councillor of Braamfontein, Sihle Nguse told Wits Vuvuzela that the homeless affect all sectors “everybody must play a role to assist the homeless, they are such smart guys they deserve a second chance at life”. He added that Braamfontein has approximately 500 displaced people.
Although the health and social development departments are jointly responsible for the city’s homeless pupulation, it is crucial to note the African phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child.” This implies that the upbringing and development of a child are not solely the responsibility of their parents or immediate family. Instead, it suggests that a community, including extended family, neighbours, and friends, play a crucial role in nurturing, guiding, and supporting a child as they grow and learn-this same analogy could be used in the case of homeless persons.
- Wits Vuvuzela, The homeless LGBTQ+ community struggle to find safety in shelters, August 2023
- Wits Vuvuzela, Covid-19 lockdown: A silver lining for homeless youth?, December 2021
- Wits Vuvuzela, Homeless students accommodated at Witwaters residence, March 2020